Is Seoul — the birthplace of Gangnam Style — a K-pop powerhouse, or is it a hallowed center of culture, home to sprawling temples and charming customs? Is Busan a modern architectural marvel and glitzy beach town, or is it the gateway to the ancient capital of Gyeongju and Korea’s remarkable past?
For the independent traveler, South Korea is all these things and much more. Home to a World Design Capital (Seoul), it’s a cultural marvel, a foodie paradise and East Asia’s most surprising destination.
Click through our slideshow to explore 12 of South Korea’s most remarkable experiences — like ringing in the New Year on the beach, walking a “great wall” and basking in the glow of a lantern festival. And don’t miss our tips for where to stay and how to get around.
Take a Green Carpet Ride
A trip to the verdant Boseong green tea fields may feel like a trip to the other side of the moon if you’ve spent any time at all exploring Seoul, Busan or one of South Korea’s other modern, bustling metropolises. The tea fields, located near the coast in South Jeolla Province, roll from one hill to another, and during the peak season (May through August) this region is one of South Korea’s most picturesque.
The Daehan Dawon Tea Plantation is among the largest and most famous; its perfectly manicured rows of tea plants make for stunning photos. This is also the site of the Hadong Wild Tea Cultural Festival, hosted every May. If you’ve driven yourself to Boseong, take a drive down nearby Boseong Cedar Road, a picturesque stretch lined with towering trees.
Daehan was one of the filming locations for a major Korean soap opera, so the site has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. If Daehan is too busy for you, don’t fret; you can visit dozens of other wilder and less groomed plantations, where you’ll enjoy plenty of green tea, green tea noodles, green tea ice cream and — well, you get the picture. One of our favorites is the very quiet Botjae Dawon Tea Plantation.
Explore an Ancient Capital
South Korea’s “Museum Without Walls,” Gyeongju is a beautiful coastal city in Gyeongsangbuk Province. It was the capital of Korea during the Silla kingdom (57 B.C. – 935 A.D.); the near-1,000-year reign of this dynasty is unparalleled in Korean history. Gyeongju is home to some of South Korea’s most important cultural treasures, including the stunning Bulguksa Temple (a UNESCO World Heritage Site that can take more than a day to explore on its own); serene Seokguram Grotto; the mammoth tumuli, or royal tombs; the Cheollyongsaji stone pagoda; Cheomseongdae, the oldest observatory in Korea; Myeonghwalsanseong Fortress and more.
It’s possible to explore Gyeongju’s historic sites on your own, but we recommend hiring an interpretive guide at one of the visitor centers to ensure that you get as much as possible out of your visit.
Climb a Volcano
Jeju-do, South Korea’s island paradise, is known for its stunning volcanic topographicy, hook-to-fork seafood, black sand beaches, uniquely southern arts and culture, and Hallasan — the country’s highest peak.
At 6,400 feet above sea level, Hallasan can be seen from anywhere on Jeju and is surrounded by more than 300 parasitic volcanic cones called oreums, which cut their own dramatic figures against the sky.
Hiking Halla is a unique, rewarding Korean experience; while strenuous in spots, each of the mountain’s seven hiking courses is no more than about six miles in length, and climbing to the peak and back can easily be done in one day (in fact, the park is open only during daylight hours). The Gwaneumsa and Seongpanak trails — both well marked with interpretive signs — lead hikers to the peak, while the other trails provide vantage points from nearby oreums. At the summit of Hallasan you’ll find Baengnokdam, or White Deer Lake, a picturesque crater lake that is among South Korea’s most photographed attractions. It’s common to come upon large parties of Korean hikers enjoying a picnic or barbecue at the peak — don’t be surprised if you’re invited to join in a celebratory feast for a climb well done.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Korean Adventure by Margot MacPherson Brewer
“Before we left Jeju, we managed to hike halfway up Mt. Hallasan, the largest mountain in all of South Korea and Jeju’s splendid and imposing centerpiece. Jeju Island is a tropical paradise that is under the radar and hosts mainly an ongoing influx of tourists from the Chinese mainland.” Read more!
Walk Korea’s Great Wall
Hwaseong Fortress, a relic of the Joseon Dynasty located in the heart of energetic Suwon, was built between 1794 and 1796. Home to Korea’s version of the Great Wall, which writhes along for more than three miles from fortification to fortification, Hwaseong, according to typical Joseon architectural traditions, includes four great gates, each pointing in a cardinal direction. Lit spectacularly at night, the gates make for impressive photographic fodder when set against the bright lights and endless traffic of modern Suwon.
Time your visit to Hwaseong Fortress to coincide with the Twenty-Four Martial Arts performance; this exhibition, which celebrates the martial arts collected in 1790 by Lee Deokmu and Park Jega for King Jeongjo, takes place daily from March through November and on weekends in December. The show is a thrilling glimpse of ancient martial arts techniques. Other Hwaseong performances include traditional dances and the Royal Guards Ceremony.
Visitors can walk along Hwaseong’s Fortress at their leisure; this historic monument and UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site is open year-round.
Taste Korean Specialties
Picture this: You and a group of 10 of your closest friends (or complete strangers you met on a metro train) sit down at a long wooden table with a charcoal grill in the center. Around the grill are neat plates of fresh raw pork (or beef, or chicken, or duck), dozens of Korean side dishes known as banchan (favorites include fresh bean sprouts in a spicy sauce, scallion salad, stir-fried mushrooms, tofu simmered in soy sauce and and more) and a variety of delicious kimchi (Korea’s most beloved dish), all accented with traditional Korean condiments. You grill your meat to taste, then layer it into a piece of lettuce, top with side dishes and paste, and wash everything down with Korea’s favorite drink, the vodka-like firewater known as soju.
Traditional barbecue restaurants are ubiquitous, and even if you can’t read or speak Korean, you’ll have no trouble spotting one; just look for a restaurant with grills in the center of the tables. Many barbecue restaurants also decorate their banners and signs with cartoon versions of the animals in which they specialize.
Once you’ve had a taste of Korean barbecue, it’s time to take your dining experience to the next level. Many restaurants, especially along the coast, serve a specialty known as sannakji; this is live octopus cut into small pieces and served squirming. Not for the faint of heart, the octopus is seasoned with sesame and oil while wriggling on the plate, and then swallowed whole. Bottoms up.
To deepen your understanding of Korean dining traditions (no, really) visit the Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul. Surprisingly interesting exhibits include information on kimchi’s history, production methods, varieties and place in Korean culture. You can also book a special tasting seminar, which takes place once a month.
Ring in the New Year on the Beach
Busan’s Haeundae Beach is one of South Korea’s most beloved recreation areas. This seemingly endless stretch of sand facing the Sea of Japan welcomes thousands of visitors on a warm day; looking out over a sea of blue, red and white umbrellas is a unique experience. The beach features a Folk Square, where you can engage in traditional Korean wrestling, friendly tug-of-war matches, seesaw jumping and arrow tossing.
The soft sand and gentle ocean waves make this a great place to unwind on a summer day, but it is during the Haemaji Sunrise Festival that the beach really comes to life. This New Year’s festival is marked by a bell ceremony on New Year’s Eve that starts at Yongdusan Park and carries on down at the beach. Visitors can enjoy art installations, fireworks displays and more — and then watch the sun come up on a new year from Korea’s most iconic seaside destination. Once the sun has risen, join in kite-flying celebrations, release balloons into the sky, and sip on some complimentary green tea and coffee. (It’s cold in January, after all.)
Step into the Past
Hahoe Folk Village is a historic Korean village built in the 16th century during the Joseon dynasty; it was home to the Ryu Clan of Pungsan for generations. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hahoe has many original buildings and artifacts such as the Confucian school, Yangjindang Manor and Namchondaek House, all painstakingly preserved.
Built in the foothills of Hwasan Mountain, Hahoe’s stunning location is part of its charm. The serpentine Nakdong River skirts the village, the grounds are marked by dozens of ancient pine trees and the Buyongdae Cliff offers visitors an opportunity to look over the entirety of the village from on high.
Spend a day exploring Hahoe, and dine on local Andong fare; salted mackerel, Andong soju (Korea’s ubiquitous spirit) and heotjesabap (mixed rice and vegetables) are popular in this part of the country.
Bask in the Glow of a Lantern Festival
The Lotus Lantern Festival is an annual event that lights up the temples, streets and skies over Seoul. Held each spring in honor of the Buddha’s birth, the Lotus Lantern Festival begins with the hanging of thousands of delicate lanterns at temples throughout the city. Festivities are launched officially with the lighting of a massive lantern at Seoul Plaza.
Visitors can craft their own lanterns, sample traditional temple food, play folk music and games, and take beginner courses in Buddhism. A highlight of the event, the Exhibition of Traditional Lanterns, takes place at venerable Jogyesa and Bongeunsa Temples and along the Cheonggyecheon Stream. In the evening visitors can join the Eoulim Madang, or Buddhist Cheer Rally, to support participants in the Lantern Parade. The parade itself, which runs from Heunginjimun Gate in Dongdaemun to Jogyesa Temple, along Jongno Street, lasts for more than two hours; in addition to stunning lanterns — crafted by local artisans and internationally recognized artists — the parade includes dancing, acrobatics and more.
Unwind in Korea’s Island Paradise
Ulleungdo, an island some 75 miles east of the Korean Peninsula, is the visible remnant of an extinct stratovolcano that rises dramatically from the ocean floor to a height of 3,228 feet at Seonginbong Peak, a rocky apex often shrouded by clouds. An outdoor paradise, Ulleungdo’s hiking trails are beloved by Koreans, while sea kayaking, paddle-boarding, fishing and diving are also gaining in popularity.
A highlight of any visit to Ulleungdo is the dramatic views of mountains meeting the coast, which can be witnessed on sightseeing cruises (boats depart from Dodong Harbor every two hours during the summer high season), strolls along the Haengnam Seaside Walkway (an easy 1.5-mile walk from Dodong to the quaint village of Jeodong) or hikes to Seonginbong Peak; the strenuous trek from Dodong to the peak and back can take as long as six hours.
For a less taxing adventure, visit the Dodong Lighthouse, where you can view (on a clear day) the infamous islands of Dokdo, long a point of contention between South Korea and Japan. Alternatively, you can take the cable car ride up to Manghyang Peak, or spend a few hours exploring beautiful Yaksu Park (10 minutes by foot from the ferry terminal in Dodong), where you may or may not encounter the fountain of youth.
Ulleungdo has no air service; all visitors arrive via ferry from the mainland. While three ferry operators provide regular service, their websites are notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to navigate. As an alternative, consider booking your visit via Adventure Korea.
Sing Your Heart Out at a Karaoke Bar
Karaoke caught fire in Korea in the 1980s, and by 2010, there were more than 600,000 karaoke machines in South Korea — one for roughly every 80 people. Karaoke can be performed anywhere there’s a mic and a machine, of course, but one of the most unique aspects of Korean culture is the concept of the karaoke bar, or norebang.
Norebangs cross social, gender and age lines — it’s common to find students, off-duty military personnel and businesspeople in karaoke clubs. Some clubs offer food and drink services, some open late and don’t close until the sun comes up, some are themed (the American jazz lounge is popular, as is the rock ‘n’ roll club), and others are simple operations, with little more than a karaoke machine, a screen and a microphone. For some strange reason, you’ll almost always find a tambourine in a karaoke bar. Korean pop (K-pop, to the uninitiated) is the most popular style of music, followed closely by American music of all genres.
Walk a mile in any direction in any Korean city and you’ll pass half a dozen karaoke bars; it’s fun to choose your destination based on the brightness of the neon sign out front.
Visit the World’s Most Militarized Border
The border between North and South Korea — known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ — is the most heavily fortified in the world. This strip of land along the 38th parallel offers a glimpse into the complicated relationship between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea.
If you’re brave enough, you can step foot into North Korea; the Joint Security Area station in the border town of Panmunjom is held jointly by the two Koreas, and allows visitors to step, albeit rather briefly, into the North and take photographs of North Korean security personnel. There’s a certain adrenaline rush associated with tiptoeing over the line of one of the planet’s most fiercely guarded nations.
While at the DMZ, you can also explore an underground tunnel dug by the North’s military machine. The Third Tunnel of Aggression, as it is known in the South, was built to facilitate a surprise attack on Seoul by North Korean military forces — though the North’s government contends that the tunnel was part of a coal mine. The tunnel, which could conceivably move more than 30,000 soldiers per hour, is one of four such tunnels discovered by the South, though numerous others are suspected to exist. Tours allow visitors to descend into the tunnel more than 200 feet below ground.
The DMZ is best explored on an organized tour; sign up for one of the regular expeditions offered by Adventure Korea.
Editor’s Note: The Demilitarized Zone may not always be safe for (or open to) tourists when tensions flare between North and South Korea. Be aware of current events before considering a trip.
Go Ice Fishing
Winters in the northeastern province of Gangwon can be long and harsh, with severe weather that blankets the mountainous region in snow and freezes rivers and lakes solid. Hardy Korean fisherfolk decided to take advantage of these conditions to create the Mountain Trout Ice Festival. The annual event takes place on the picturesque Hwacheon River, long considered South Korea’s premier fishing destination. Thousands of revelers come together to enjoy chilly days of ice fishing, local culinary fare (starring, you guessed it, grilled or raw mountain trout), polar dips, bobsledding, snow soccer, ice sculptures and more.
Brave visitors can try their luck at barehanded trout fishing. The concept is simple: Strip down to your swim trunks, grit your teeth and jump through a hole cut in the ice. If you can catch a trout before you freeze, you win. Either way, you’re rewarded with a visit to one of the many portable sauna units nearby.
The Mountain Trout Ice Festival (Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival in Korean) takes place each January.
Best Time to Go to South Korea
The ideal times of year to travel to South Korea are the spring, when temperatures are pleasant and the cherry blossoms bloom, and the fall, when the hills are blanketed in gorgeous autumn foliage. Summers can be hot, humid and rainy, while winters are chilly and ideal mostly for skiers. Keep an eye out for Korean holidays such as Lunar New Year and the Harvest Moon Festival, when locals hit the roads and hotels sell out fast.
South Korea on a Budget
For many travelers the flight to South Korea will be one of the biggest expenses you face. To save, be as flexible as possible with your travel dates and consider a package that includes accommodations. Once in South Korea, consider alternatives to hotels such as hostels, apartment rentals and hanoks, or traditional Korean houses. Booking a place with a kitchen will let you stock up at grocery stores and save on restaurant meals.
–written by Flash Parker